Melbourne Home: An office suite becomes a home

Design tricks with a theatrical influence turn a suite of offices in Melbourne’s Port Authority building into a home for a discerning businessman.

To bastardise Shakespeare’s wisdom about the world being a stage, living rooms are like little sets – the best of which will steep you in the atmospherics of a personal story and the worst of which will have you eyeing off the exit door.

Ljiljana Gazevic does not work in theatre, but she gets the mise-en-scène power of orchestrating props, colour and light so that a character and narrative concept command full interest in a space – meaning her clients, not overwrought sofas, take centre stage. She learned the secrets of immersive decor from her Uncle Vlado, a set designer working in theatre in south-eastern Europe in the 1970s.

Gazevic remembers how he could stitch a story into any short-lived space and evoke a feeling with its effect rather than a consciousness of it. “I was curious, often going with him into the pre-production studios,” she says in a Slavic accent still strong after two decades living in Australia. “It is thanks to him that I have this curiosity for design.”

How Gazevic made it from home-town Montenegro to Melbourne is a story for another time; suffice it to say that when this co-director of SJB Interiors was recently asked by a client to work her magic on an apartment carve-up of the city’s historically significant Port Authority building, she read the architecture’s overarching narrative and created a new scene.

“This is the story of maritime Melbourne,” says Gazevic, more informed than most locals about the Beaux Arts building, the city location of which alludes to an era when port facilities stretched further up the Yarra River. “It is all heritage protected. We couldn’t touch it.” Designed in the late 1920s by Sydney Smith, Ogg & Serpell (who won the Royal Victorian Institute of Architects’ ‘Street’ medal in 1933 for their efforts), the nine-storey, granite-based behemoth – all giant order Doric columns drilling up to the sky – belies the economic desperation of its Depression-era build.

“These were the chairman and commissioner’s office suites and this was the boardroom,” says Gazevic, pushing into her client’s apartment through a door that announces its former function in gold letters. “How do you prevent a boardroom feeling like a boardroom?”

Having benefitted, some years before, from an apartment-wide design by architect Mark Richards, who responded to the heritage listing with island marble cabinets that lend an edge and moveable amenity to the hall-sized space, the boardroom begged a flexibility with furniture that could serve both large groups and intimate gatherings: “two people had to feel just as comfortable as 50 people within the large traditional setting.” So Gazevic adopted a two table strategy for dining and ‘zoned’ a sitting room within the area of a large silk rug. She specified a low-key luxe in functional contemporary pieces that counterpointed the enveloping blackwood classicism and ceiling embellishment.

To this “good base” could be added legible clues to the resident’s character: decorative wine decanters, vintage posters, Moooi ceramics, books on luxury cars, Jeffrey Smart art and the odd bender of a bench by Zaha Hadid – all indicators of a bon vivant with a business brain. “He was a dream client,” says Gazevic, leading through the commissioner’s door to private spaces that resonate with ‘members only’ masculinity. “The first time I entered this apartment, I had the strong feeling that I was in Europe, but it was too easy to just follow history.

This client wanted design that reflected the richness of the building but also Melbourne in the 21st century.” This contradictory requirement was resolved with a Ceccotti catalogue – containing artisan-made ‘modern antiques’ in very Beaux Arts walnut and bronze – and DeUnie furniture of Gazevic’s own design for Mortice & Tenon.

“Here he welcomes many international visitors,” she says, showing a guest room, where new structure was not allowed, contained within an arrangement of mirrored screen and silk-faced wardrobe. “But I was also briefed to design the spaces so that if he was the only one in here, he never felt alone.”

Gazevic has fabricated feeling with all the skill of a scenographer – blocking furniture to facilitate ‘performance’ and spotlighting where the drama needs to arc. Rich restraint allows the intangibles to do their immersive work – sunlight cutting plane-tree shadow on parquetry floor encodes the culture of Melbourne. If all the world is a stage, a crack team of behind-the-scenes talent can be the difference between commanding it or blending into the background.

This story was first published in Vogue Living Sept/Oct 2012, on news stands and Zinio now.

Photographer: Lisa Cohen
Producer/Writer: Annemarie Kiely

2 Responses to “Melbourne Home: An office suite becomes a home”
  1. Goodness gracious, thats a very nice floor! Looks like its been finished perfectly aswell. I would not mind living there thats for sure 🙂 Great blog

Check out what others are saying...
  1. […] Formerly part of a suite of offices in the Melbourne Port Authority building, this bedroom came pre-equipped with some seriously masculine wood paneling. Interior design by Ljiljana Gazevic. Featured in Vogue Living. […]

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